Dangerous Places: Health, Safety, and Archaeology

By David A. Poirier; Kenneth L. Feder | Go to book overview

7

Smallpox and Other Scourges of the Dead

Thomas A. J. Crist

Calvin Luther Jr. probably did not realize how sick he was when the fever and headache first began to bother him around the second week of February 1875. After all, he had been much sicker during the war. In fact, he was detached from the Fifth Rhode Island Heavy Artillery in June 1865 on account of “sickness,” so this low-grade fever he now had was probably more annoying than distressing. Over the next week or so, as his temperature rose and the abdominal pain grew worse, the fifty-three-year-old Luther family patriarch probably continued to do his regular chores around the family farm along Shunpike Road in Johnston, Rhode Island. It was during the second week of his fever that he first noticed the rose-colored spots that had appeared on his chest and abdomen. Concern bordering on panic now engulfed the Luther household: typhoid fever!

By the end of the month, Calvin Luther Jr. could hardly climb out of bed to use the privy. The spots on his chest had disappeared after a few days, but now the bloody diarrhea was unmistakable. With no appetite, a very low pulse, and a distinct ringing in his ears, Calvin had little strength to do anything. And the searing pain in his abdomen! “How could I have caught typhoid?” Calvin wondered as he laid in what was to become his deathbed. It was probably the water from the well near the privy or maybe the milk that sat out overnight in that chipped redware milkpan in the barn. It really did not matter, as Calvin privately began to worry that he might not be fully recovered in time for the spring planting.

When he had first noticed the pinkish spots, Calvin’s wife Mary quickly summoned the local doctor. Well aware of the high mortality associated with typhoid fever, the doctor consulted one of his medical books, An Analytical

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